Crime fiction you can’t ignore: The Listening Walls by Margaret Millar

What I like about Margaret Millar’s novels is that every chapter is strong enough and laced with enough character, tone and climax to function as its own short story. The Listening Walls, a vintage mystery now given a new lease of life via Pushkin Press, is a prime example of this confident writer’s economical skills.

We begin in a Mexican hotel with two vacationing American women. Why they’re together we don’t know as they seem to be increasingly distant as friends. As fate would have it, only one of the women will walk out of the hotel.

Millar gives us just enough in the way of hints to start cooking up our own conclusions but before you know it we are whisked away from that world. The jigsaw has broken. The pieces have scattered again. Millar has the full picture but it’s pressed tight against her chest.

Chapter after chapter we learn some more and the net widens. This is the key to a Millar mystery and it’s what sets her apart from a lot of other mystery writers: the more she writes, the less we know.

Sure, we are given more information to work with but really she’s just revealed the haystack to be larger and the needle to be relatively smaller than it once was. And yet, we never get the sense that her focus has wavered. Her control is masterly.

Millar’s prose sits handsomely alongside her male cohorts – the likes of Hammett, Chandler and her husband Ross Macdonald – but I would say that it goes a notch further and enters into the wider pantheon of American literary greats that fall outside of the crime genre.

With her sparse descriptions laced with humour and wonderful insights on life’s uncertain road to commitment, I’ll place her up there with Larry McMurtry (Terms of Endearment) and Marilynne Robinson (Housekeeping).

Millar doesn’t do throwaway lines. It’s all precious. Little asides like “she carried the commuters’ essential, an enormous handbag” add detail about not just the characters but the world they inhabit and their place within it, all the while adding snap to the pace and humour to the prose.

Every supporting character has moments like this peppered in to a point where it feels like we are reading a great ensemble study like Empire Falls. The notion that crime fiction is a lesser literary genre is one that Millar leaves bleeding in the gutter.

I’ll leave you with a snapshot of her mysterious, psychological prose: “Doors began opening in his mind, revealing rooms that peopled with shadows and voiced with echoes. None of the shadows could be positively identified, and the echoes were like the nonsense syllables produced by a tape recording running backward. But in one corner of one room, a faceless woman sat at a desk, writing.”

The Listening Walls is a story worth hearing. It’s out now via Pushkin Vertigo alongside other Millar classics Vanish in an Instant and A Stranger in My Grave.

More details on the Pushkin Press website here

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